Speech to Parliament in an Opposition Day Debate on Foot and Mouth disease.
"I am pleased to contribute to this debate, particularly since I represent one of the foremost lamb-producing areas of the country. The Vale of Clwyd and the surrounding hills are renowned for the quality of produce and the very brand "Welsh lamb" is a byword for excellence. Farmers know their business; they know their animals; they know the land they work on. As the Hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) pointed out, it is they who are largely responsible for the landscape that we see today.
My constituents were devastated by the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and it has taken a long time for their fortunes to improve. One can only imagine the devastation that the events of 3 August and what followed have wrought on them. It could not have come at a worse time. Most of the trade in Welsh lamb is conducted during August to December, which is the livestock farmer's harvest period.
The export trade this year and possibly for next has been destroyed, with the consequent glut causing lamb prices to collapse. Indeed, at Ruthin market two weeks ago, one of my constituents obtained, after costs, 36p a head for his ewes.
The devastating effect on the industry can scarcely be overstated. I believe that everyone recognises that the fault lies in incompetent supervision of the Pirbright facility. There can be no question but that any facility whose sole function is to contain a dangerous virus that allows that virus to escape into the environment must necessarily be viewed as negligent—or even worse.
Perhaps, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) suggested, there is strict liability under the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher. The Secretary of State's assertion that pure economic loss cannot be addressed could well be wrong.
The fact is that this Government, to their shame, regarded the outbreak of foot and mouth disease as a suitable vehicle for establishing themselves with a reputation for competence in the run-up to the election that they believed was fast approaching. That is perfectly obvious, despite the pained expressions emanating from the Secretary of State. It is perfectly obvious that that was the Government's modus operandi from the moment that the disease became apparent.
The Prime Minister broke off his holiday, halfway through his scone, to hotfoot it back to London in order to take charge of the Cobra team. We subsequently witnessed the spectacle of the Secretary of State for Wales being quoted in The Western Mail as saying, remarkably enough, that the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis had established for them a "reputation for competence". If that constitutes a reputation for competence, heaven knows what would constitute a reputation for incompetence.
When the Prime Minister finally decided to chicken out of the election, he said that he could have gone to the country on the basis of the "reputation for competence" that the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis had established for them. That was a cynical exercise all along. In fact, it is more than incompetence: it is a cynical manipulation of the processes in this country.
I want to press the Secretary of State on something that he mentioned earlier. In his statement to the House on 8 October he made it clear, as he has today, that the devolved Administrations would have financial responsibility for the support schemes in Wales and Scotland.
We know that excised from his original speech were the following words:
'I have also agreed with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that Scotland should receive £8.1 million and Wales £6.5 million to assist them in countering the impacts of foot and mouth on their livestock farmers'.
The Secretary of State has told the House—and I am sure the House accepts it—that the words were not originally inserted with an eye to the election. What I should like to know, and what I am sure other Members would like to know, is why, in that case, they were excised. It is a simple question, and I think that the House is entitled to an answer to it.
I do feel that the Government have shown a certain lack of respect to farmers in Wales and Scotland.
It is clear from what the Secretary of State said earlier today, and on 8 October when he made his initial statement, that the Government intend to resist any claim for consequential economic loss.
He will be aware that both NFU Cymru and the Farmers Union of Wales are taking legal advice on the prospects of recovery. Would it be too much for the Government to indicate that they will deal with those claims in a positive, proactive and co-operative manner and will not expect the farming industry to go to the wire in court—and particularly that, if they should indeed be liable according to the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher, they will meet whatever obligations they have to the industry to the full extent of their legal liability?
Finally, there is the question of accountability. What has happened over the past two months has been the most appalling episode for the British farming industry. It cannot be right for such a massive infliction of damage on the industry to go without a single individual being disciplined, and without a single resignation. Resignations must be called for.
I hope that the Secretary of State will consider that aspect of the matter, and will ask those whom he considers responsible to resign.
This whole episode has highlighted a Government who are incapable of dealing with any emergency on any basis other than with an eye to publicity and the way in which they present themselves to the electorate. It is high time that they were straight in their dealings with the agricultural community.
I can tell the Secretary of State that the British agricultural industry has sustained enormous damage, and that it will be a long time before it recovers and an even longer time before it forgets."